Diddling While Rome Burns

 | 

Your humble social media correspondent is troubled. For some time now, discord among warring libertarians has raged on Facebook, my own battlefield of choice. In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

One friend — whom I also know personally — has gone on an unholy tear about the injustices of life as a tenant. “Rent is theft!” his posts repeatedly scream. I’ve always considered him a levelheaded person. I have no idea what’s happened to him. A lot of people are quitting him because he’s gone to a place so dark they don’t want to follow.

In just the past few days it has gotten uglier than ever among my own libertarian Facebook friends.

I know he leans far left. Like a lot of former statist progressives, he’s outraged about something practically all the time. He sees it as his personal mission to convert as many as possible of his comrades to left-libertarianism. I suppose you could say that he’s the Apostle Paul of that faction. But if all he has to give these hungry souls is more outrage and aggrievement, I think he’s offering pretty thin gruel.

In my previous essay in Liberty I alluded to the compulsion I see in so many people to dress up in fancy and heroic costumes. As this turbulence on Facebook was something I was already facing daily, I had it at least partially in mind. Almost everybody involved is between 19 and 25, looking for a girlfriend (or in some cases, a boyfriend) and hoping to appear edgy and revolutionary. I know I must be getting old, because the whole production is making me tired and cranky.

These people need to take a good, hard look around them. I can’t imagine where they’re getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom. Their mothers might have cared, in a worried, “Do you have a tummyache, dear?” sort of way, and their buds at the dorm probably found it mildly engrossing over pizza and beer. But they’re supposed to be adults now, and they’re merely diddling while Rome burns.

We’ve all got a lot of heavy lifting to do if we are even going to budge this society in a libertarian direction. The blessed time when we might profitably haggle about what type of libertarian society we’re going to have — just exactly, and to a precise ideological point — is one that neither I, nor anyone reading this essay, will ever live to see. It may be as distant in the future as the American Revolution is in the past. In the meantime, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we are standing for what is right and that each of us is doing our personal utmost to work toward that worthy goal. Ordering fries with that is simply not an option.

Where are they getting the notion that our increasingly police-state and nuclear-faceoff world really cares whether they’re AnCap, AnSoc or AnCom?

I’m glad to see so many new converts to the liberty movement, especially among the young, but I fear that few of them will persevere long enough to see their commitment through. I think it’s very likely that they’ll get discouraged by the tough slog, and end up returning to statism — a hefty part of the appeal of which is the promise of an order of fries with that. To switch metaphors yet again, we now find ourselves stuck in Siberia, but hope to row, in our huge fleet of leaky rowboats, clear to Honolulu. As we navigate the stormy waters between us and our destination, will they turn aside and end up shipwrecked on Alcatraz?

We’ll all just have to stay tuned. I know that I’ll continue to follow the soap opera. And I fully intend to persevere on our journey. I don’t needa side of fries — though there are some days when I yearn for an aspirin, the size of a hockey puck.




Share This


Repeal and Replace the Democratic Party

 | 

In my previous essay, I made a suggestion that would once have been unthinkable. I said that the country would be better off if the Democratic Party were bumped down to minor league status and replaced on the top tier by the Libertarian Party.

Since then, I’ve taken an informal poll of the people in my social sphere. Almost unanimously, the Republicans think it’s a fine idea. I doubt that this comes as any bigger surprise to our readers than it has to me. What would have been surprising to Americans just a few short years ago is that even an overwhelming number of the independents I polled also expressed a desire to see this big shift happen. Independents now outnumber those in either “major” party by a significant margin. Almost nobody who isn’t a Democrat can stand the donkey party anymore. That a huge swath of the population at least hates the GOP less than the Democrats became evident this past November.

I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment.

Even some Democrats can’t stand the Democratic Party. As I was writing my notes for this essay, I was talking on the phone with a very liberal friend who lamented his party’s takeover by the blowhards, crybabies, and troublemakers of the social justice warrior set. He actually spoke favorably of a novella by Ayn Rand. I was almost tempted to peek out my window at the night sky to see if the planets were in some weird new alignment. The political planets are realigning, indeed.

My reasons for hoping that a realignment might happen go beyond simply wanting big-league status for the Libertarians. Though I was a Democrat for most of my adult life, I have since moved considerably to the right. Despite the buffooneries of the GOP, it is the “major” party to which I’m ideologically closer. A rivalry between that party and ours would likely do less harm to the country than the current rivalry between it and the Democrats.

A good friend in our local chapter of the gay organization Outright Libertarians appears to see himself as something of an evangelist to the Left. He toils mightily to persuade his fellow progressives to love liberty. I wish him a lot of luck, but for the sake of my mental health, I had to abandon that mission. I’m afraid it’s a lost cause, because most leftists strike me as impervious to reason. When they lose an argument (and against us, this happens constantly), they tend to be as petulant and abusive as three-year-olds being dragged away from the toy aisle at Target.

A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud.

What would a big-league rivalry between Libertarians and Republicans look like? Quite contrary to my Outright friend, I would hate to see our party become a standard-bearer for the Left. But I think the dynamics of the American political scene would drastically change. Very likely the entire left-right paradigm would be shaken apart. Instead, the conflict would probably be between liberty and authority.

Would a head-to-head match between Libertarians and Republicans improve the GOP, or bring out the worst in it? I don’t claim to know. It might be taken over by the neocons, theocons, and crony capitalists to a far greater degree than it already has been. Or it could possibly be motivated to lay down the weapon of government force and engage us in the arena of ideas. Most likely it would have the former effect on some and the latter on others.

As far as I have traveled from the statist left, I still care about some of the causes it claims to espouse. I’m a woman, a bisexual, and a member of the working class, so I have a stake in several of those groups’ concerns. A very large part of the reason I left the Left was that I felt it had become a fraud. Progressives used to say that the end justified the means — now they very much appear to see the means as an end in themselves.

The Libertarian Party might change the game. If the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

They push people around, threaten them, deceive them, steal from them, and try to shut them up for the sake of their supposedly holy causes; and they do these things simply because they can. In fact, they give every indication that doing them is far more important than achieving the objectives for whose sake they’re allegedly being done. To much of the Left, making noise and trouble has become a bigger priority than making sense. The only genuine good they ever did was to persuade people that their causes were right and just. Now, however, they’ve given up on making sense, thereby abandoning nearly all attempts at rational persuasion.

And Democrats bring out the worst in Republicans. As the latter become more like the former, they increasingly see their scheming, lying, self-indulgently emoting identity politicking and moral panicking as necessary. These grievous faults — in which so much of the statist impulse is rooted — are rationalized as merely the rules of the game. The Libertarian Party might change the game. We operate by a completely different set of rules, and if the game were played by our rules, perhaps the American people would finally win.

Conservatives talk as if all that’s needed to save the country is a complete repeal of progressivism. Obamacare — the Left’s prized pet, which has morphed into a monster — certainly should be repealed, and with no replacement. But I believe there are certain crucial tasks conservatives simply cannot perform. Every healthy society must have progressives as well as conservatives, just as every functioning vehicle needs both a gas pedal and a brake. Under the proper conditions, those motivated to advocate what once were considered progressive causes might arise in both parties, and many former independents might very well choose to join them.

Instead of being reduced to political footballs, issues could then be debated on their own merits. Reason might take the place of aggression. Even if the lion can’t be persuaded to lie down with the lamb, perhaps it can be kept from killing it.


Editor's Note: The author is interested in hearing readers' comments, after which she will continue this essay in a second part.



Share This


Weaponized Fear

 | 

On the Sunday after the election, during the coffee hour following Mass at my Episcopal church, a parishioner went around the social hall doling out safety pins. Accompanying them were flyers telling us how comforted and loved we were supposed to feel, thanks to kind souls who — well, gave us safety pins and flyers. Just in case any of us somehow missed the point, he’d also tacked the flyers up in the hall, the narthex, and the parish house.

I declined to take one of his special safety pins. And, just because sometimes I’m ornery that way, I asked him exactly what it is we’re supposed to feel safe from. Perhaps appropriate for someone handing out safety pins, once used to fasten cloth diapers, he responded in baby-talk.

For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

Though I tried to be polite, I’m fairly sure that my annoyance showed through. I am heartily sick of the crocodile tears of those who refuse to accept the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him, but he won — and I was brought up to believe that regardless of whether they like the outcomes, adults simply accept the results of lawful elections as matters of fact. What I have a hard time accepting is Hillary Clinton’s troopers bringing their petulant “not my president” nonsense into church.

The safety pin missionary smiled his kindly Christian smile. But his eyes glazed and his jaw clenched. He clearly wanted to sock me. I must admit that at that particular moment, I didn’t feel particularly safe. For all their supposed kindness, compassion, and moral superiority over the rest of us, the “progressives” of today are among the most hostile and aggressive people I have ever seen.

It wasn’t enough to foist his magical talismans off on us during coffee hour. In the middle of a meeting of the St. Anne’s Guild — an Episcopal women’s organization — he burst in to pass them around. When they came to me, I dropped them. I confess I can’t be sure it was entirely accidental.

Am I overreacting? Is there anything wrong, at heart, with this ministry of the diaper pin? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to comfort fearful people. I suppose I’d find these admonitions not to be afraid more comforting — not to mention more convincing — if they weren’t coming from the very people turning a blind eye to mass tantrums that degenerate into riots. In an instant, this crowd can go from speaking pabulum words of peace to screaming through a bullhorn.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training.

I’d be the last to deny that fear has reached pestilential levels in our society. We see it everywhere, and it motivates more of what we do than most of us would care to admit. When our “fear” button is pressed too often, and too hard, it gets stuck in the “on” position. And an overload of fear — especially during an extended period — goads us into rage. Rage is nothing more or less than weaponized fear.

Fear is the weapon of tyrants. Statists are, at the very least, tyrants-in-training. Donald Trump has poured his share of gasoline on the fire. Not so much in what he’s said, himself, but in the hordes of supporters who, throughout his campaign, he encouraged to be angry and little else. They were angry because they were afraid, and because they were so angry they’ve made many other people afraid.

This vicious cycle won’t be stopped by people who condemn fearmongering only in those with whom they disagree, while condoning it in their political allies. I believe that Trump supporters would have been equally quick to kick, scream, and turn blue if their candidate had lost the election. Those who behave that way are certainly very likely to be afraid. But they don’t hesitate to throw their rivals into the most ungodly terror they are capable of inspiring.

The safety-pin crusade was, in itself, an act of aggression. That it masqueraded as an attempt to be comforting fooled nobody who wasn’t willing to be fooled. It was infantile, as acts of aggression usually are. If protestors against our constitutionally stipulated political process continue to behave like irrational children, they will destroy this country. And any church that doesn’t stop this nonsense from happening in what its parishioners trust to be sacred space will eventually find its entire body of believers in diapers, and nothing in the collection plate but safety pins.




Share This


A Normal Country in a Normal Time Ever Again?

 | 

The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989–1991 closed an important chapter not only in Russian history, but in our own as well.

For 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation enjoined to isolation by its founders, had labored to save Western civilization, and indeed the world, from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It had won through against both enemies, though at considerable cost to itself.

The war of 1941–1945 against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan cost the lives of 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We must, of course, never forget the sacrifice those men made for victory. Lost lives aside, however, the war actually benefited America tremendously. We emerged from it as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Our economy in 1945 accounted for almost 50% of the world’s total output; we possessed a wealth of modern plant and equipment, and we were far ahead of the rest of the world in most if not all cutting-edge technologies. Our infrastructure was the most modern and efficient in the world, and there was more (such as the national highway system) to come. Our debt was high, but we owed most of it to ourselves, and were quite capable of paying it off. The terrible days of the Great Depression were over, seemingly for good; the soup kitchens and shantytowns of the 1930s were gone, while an expanding middle class that for the first time included blue-collar workers was enjoying a prosperity greater than any other nation had known.

If culturally the America of 1945 was in no way comparable to Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, there was nevertheless a certain vitality evident in American arts and letters. Modernism was in its heyday, and its capital was no longer Paris but New York. The undifferentiated mass barbarism of the postmodernist present was, in the period 1945–1965, almost inconceivable.

We emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

The costs of the Cold War against Soviet Communism were both more subtle and more profound than those incurred in World War II, although it was not until the 1960s that these costs began to be felt. Dallas and its legacies — the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam — initiated a period of decline in American power, prestige, and prosperity. The fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the latter, as it turned out, the last in a series of Communist takeovers in what was then known as the Third World) seemed to mark a turn in the historical tide. Not that communism, as a doctrine and system of government, could stand comparison to Western values; it most assuredly could not. But the West, and particularly the United States, appeared to be in terminal decline. By the late 1970s a failure of will, of morale, was palpably in the air. Vietnam looked increasingly like an American version of the expedition to Syracuse — that unnecessary and, ultimately, disastrous campaign undertaken by ancient Athens, and memorably recorded in the pages of Thucydides.

Yet Athens, despite its defeat at Syracuse, and despite waging war simultaneously against Sparta and the vast Persian Empire, rallied and regained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War. It was only later that war à outrance and treason within brought about Athens’ final defeat and the end of its primacy in the ancient world.

America in the 1980s rallied in a similar fashion, emerging from the nadir of defeat in Vietnam to challenge Soviet imperialism once more, and then, by a policy of peace through strength, giving the sclerotic Soviet system a final push that sent it to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. With this the 50-year struggle against totalitarianism was over, and freedom had triumphed. Or had it? At just this moment, in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador and a prominent neoconservative, published an article in the National Interest. It was titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” and it put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e., world domination.

Kirkpatrick, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, began her essay by stating that a good society is not defined by its foreign policy but rather by the “existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.”

Kirkpatrick put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve world domination.

She went on to write that “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only [emphasis added] if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression.” The end of the Cold War, she averred, “frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.”

Kirkpatrick’s vision was right for America in 1990, and it remains so now. But that vision, alas, has never been fulfilled.

In her essay Kirkpatrick warned that foreign policy elites — the denizens of government bureaucracies, universities, and thinktanks — had become altogether too influential and powerful during the 50 years’ emergency, and that their interests were by no means aligned with those of the citizenry as a whole. She made two other very important points: that restraint on the international stage is not the same thing as isolationism, and that popular control of foreign policy is vitally necessary to prevent elite, minority opinion from determining the perceived national interest. With respect to the latter point Kirkpatrick neither said nor implied that the American people should make policy directly. She acknowledged — correctly — that professional diplomats and other experts are required for the proper execution of national policy. But policy in the broad sense must reflect the views of the people and must be circumscribed by the amount of blood and treasure the people are willing to sacrifice for any particular foreign policy objective.

Her concept of a polity in which the citizenry sets or at least endorses the goals of foreign policy admittedly has its troubling aspects. For one thing, it is far from certain that the citizenry as a whole — the masses, to be blunt — will choose to adopt wise policies. In Athens the expedition against Syracuse was enthusiastically endorsed by the Assembly, and history is replete with further examples of the popular will leading to disaster. Flowing from this is a second problem: the ability of clever demagogues or cabals to sway or bypass popular opinion in favor of policies that are inimical to the general interest, and that often turn out to be disastrous. Post-World War II American history provides numerous examples of this: the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of a democratic government in Iran at the behest of British and American oil interests, with consequences that we are still trying to deal with today; the Bay of Pigs (1961), which set in motion a chain of events that nearly led to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, both of which received initial popular support as a result of outright deception perpetrated by a few powerful men with an agenda. (The phony Tonkin Gulf incident opened the way to escalation in Vietnam, while the falsehoods about WMD, anthrax, and Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 made possible George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.)

Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

Nevertheless, the alternative to popular control over foreign policy is the placing of the nation’s destiny in the hands of an elite that, by its very nature, typically has little understanding of the needs and desires of the people as a whole. Such elites are, unfortunately, quite prone to committing disastrous errors of judgment — witness the events mentioned above. Plato’s guardians are rarely found in the flesh. Gibbon pointed to the Five Good Emperors who reigned over Rome in the period 96–180 CE, which the historian characterized as the happiest and most prosperous time in human history. But these men were almost the exceptions that prove the rule. British policy in the 19th century was guided by statesmen such as Palmerston and Salisbury — men who understood both Britain’s interests and the limits of its power. For a brief period of ten years, between the fall of France in 1940 and the decision to march to the Yalu in Korea in 1950, American foreign policy received, in general, wise elite guidance. These were critical years, and we should be thankful that men such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson were in power at that time. But except for that brief span, elite leadership of American foreign policy has entailed economic and blood costs far in excess of those we actually needed to pay. Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

The Deep State, quite real though unacknowledged by most academic historians and the mainstream media, amounts to a partnership between nonstate actors and various groups inside government, working together to shape and carry out policies that are generally contrary to the popular will, and often to the national interest as well. The Deep State is not a second, shadow government or conspiracy central, with permanent members who manipulate puppets in the White House and the halls of Congress. Rather, it consists of shifting or ad hoc alliances between government insiders and groups of powerful people or institutions outside of government. The former are sometimes elected officials, sometimes holders of key posts in the bureaucracy or the military. Such alliances are typically formed in the name of “national security” but often benefit only the ideological, institutional, or pecuniary interests of Deep State actors.

Some of the nonstate actors are “respectable” (the big New York banks, the oil majors, defense contractors), while others are by no means so (the Mafia, international drug traffickers). But whether they can be mentioned in polite company or not, their influence has often been felt in the councils of government, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. For example, the swift transformation of the CIA, originally conceived as an intelligence-gathering agency, into a covert operations juggernaut was the work of men drawn mainly from Wall Street law firms and investment banks. These men went on to cooperate with the Mafia in places such as Cuba, extending an overworld-underworld partnership that went back to World War II.

Malign influences of this sort had been present since at least the end of the Civil War, but in earlier times had been limited to buying votes in Congress or persuading the executive to dispatch the Marines to establish order and collect debts in Latin American banana republics. The great expansion of government in World War II, and especially during the Cold War, allowed the Deep State to metastasize. The collapse of the European colonial empires and the simultaneous ascension of America to superpower status meant that after 1945 the American Deep State could extend its tentacles globally.

The turning point was probably the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. These institutions, and particularly the first two, were (and to an extent still are) beyond the effective control of either the Congress or the president of the moment. And they are not alone. The various intelligence services and the military, or parts thereof, often pursue agendas that are at variance with official policy as set out by the president. They sometimes partner with each other, or with powerful institutions and people outside of government, to achieve mutually desired objectives. President Eisenhower, with his immense personal popularity and prestige, was able to hold the line to the extent of keeping us out of another shooting war, though he nevertheless felt compelled to warn the people, in his farewell address, of the growing power and influence of the Deep State, which he termed the Military-Industrial Complex.

The “deep events” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra — cannot be understood without reference to the Deep State. The role of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Iran-Contra is a good example of the Deep State in action. I mention BCCI specifically because its peculiar history has been revealed in several well-researched books and in investigations by the Congress. But the role of BCCI in Iran-Contra (and much else besides) is just one of the many strange manifestations of the Deep State in our history. The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

The loss of liberty that resulted from the emergence and growth of the Deep State was real and perhaps irreversible. By the 1960s, the machinery of domestic surveillance, created in embryo by J. Edgar Hoover even before World War II, included spying on the populace by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military. Domestic spying was reined in somewhat during the 1970s, only to be ramped up again under Reagan in the 1980s. These abuses were part of the price paid for victory in the Cold War. Whether such abuses were inevitable under Cold War conditions is debatable; I personally would characterize them as the effluvia typical of a bloated imperium.

The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

Be that as it may, the Cold War did end in a real victory, and with victory came the hope that the worrisome trends (“worrisome” is doubtless too mild a word) that the struggle against totalitarianism had initiated or exacerbated could be reversed.

It was therefore highly encouraging when in 1990 Kirkpatrick published her article calling on America to become once again a normal country. That the call was sounded by a leading representative of the neoconservative movement, rather than someone from the Left, was quite promising. If a hardliner such as Kirkpatrick could see the light, perhaps other important leaders of the American polity would, too.

In the 1990s there were some indications that we were heading in the right direction. Under Bush the First and Clinton, defense spending decreased by about 30% from Cold War highs. Internally, signs of health began to emerge — for example, the decline in crime to early 1960s levels, and the return to a balanced federal budget (the latter, admittedly, achieved with some accounting legerdemain). A slow but steady healing process appeared to be underway.

In retrospect, one can see that these were mere surface phenomena. America’s role in the world did not undergo a fundamental reappraisal, as Kirkpatrick’s thesis demanded. The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap. Meddling elsewhere — in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — reinforced this view, even though Somalia turned out badly (and of course Bosnia eventually became a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, which is the state of affairs there today). In the 1990s pundits and average citizens alike began to speak openly of an American empire, while of course stressing its liberal and benign aspects. “We run the world” was the view espoused across a broad spectrum of public opinion, with dissent from this view confined to a few libertarians and traditional conservatives on the right, and some principled thinkers on the left.

At the same time, Deep State actors were attempting, both openly and covertly, to prevent any return to normalcy (if I may use that term), while promoting their agenda of American supremacy. Certain academics and intellectuals, lobbyists, defense contractors, and government officials with their eyes on the revolving door were all working assiduously to convince the Congress and the people that a return to something like a normal country in a normal time was a dangerous proposition. In fact, of course, there was no longer any need for America to maintain a huge military establishment and a worldwide network of bases — for there was no longer any existential threat. Russia was at that time virtually prostrate (nor did it ever have to become an enemy again), China as a danger was at least 25 years away, and Islamic terrorism was in its infancy — and could moreover have been sidestepped if the US had simply withdrawn from the Middle East, or at least evacuated Saudi Arabia and ended its one-sided support for Israel. But in the end these facts were either ignored or obscured by influential people with foreign policy axes to grind, assisted by others who had a financial stake in the maintenance of a global American empire.

The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap.

One group, The Project for the New American Century, stands out for its persistence and drive in seeking to advance a particularist agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the members of this group — which included not only such faux intellectuals as Bill Kristol, but men with real power inside and outside of government, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — prepared the way for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. The blueprints for both the war and the Act were prepared by these men even before 9/11. September 11, 2001 was of course a turning point, just as 1947 had been. The neocons, the Deep State, had won. When the towers came down it meant that “full-spectrum dominance” had triumphed over “a normal country in a normal time.”

The Project for the New American Century closed its doors in 2006, but the neocons live on, and persist in calling for more defense spending, more interventionism, and more government restrictions on civil liberties. And they are joined by other voices. The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite. They, like the neocons, see Obama as far too passive a commander-in-chief, even as he wages war by proxy and drone in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and continues the state of national emergency first declared by George W. Bush on September 14, 2001. The state of emergency gives extraordinary wartime powers to the executive, even in the absence of a declared war. Some of the powers that the commander-in-chief possesses under the declaration are actually secret. Obama, who has the authority to end the state of emergency, has instead renewed it annually since taking office. The Congress, which is required by law to meet every six months to determine whether the state of emergency should be continued, has never considered the matter in formal session. (The Roman Republic, in case of a dire emergency, appointed a dictator whose power automatically expired after six months’ time. Only under the empire was a permanent autocracy instituted.)

At the same time, the systematic domestic surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, far more extensive than anything J. Edgar Hoover or James Jesus Angleton (CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954–1975) ever dreamed of, has been left virtually intact by the Obama administration and the Congress.

Obama’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat, is almost certain to be more interventionist abroad, and equally or more unfriendly to civil liberties at home (Trump seems mainly concerned with getting our allies to pay more for the protection we give them, as opposed to cutting back on our worldwide commitments, while his apparent views on civil liberties are not encouraging). America, it appears, is incapable of dialing back on imperial overstretch. Yet what vital American interest is served by meddling in places like Yemen or Ukraine? What ideals are fulfilled by supporting the suppression of democracy in, for example, Bahrain? It seems clear that American elites, both inside and outside government, simply cannot bring themselves to let the world be, cannot abandon the concept of a global order organized and run by the United States.

With distance comes perspective. As time passes it becomes ever clearer that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq represented a second American Syracuse, a defeat with catastrophic consequences. It is quite true that, as in Vietnam, our forces were not beaten in the field. But the greater truth is that the political objectives in Iraq, as in Vietnam, were not achievable, and that this could and should have been recognized from the start. Today most of Iraq is divided between a corrupt and incompetent Shia-led government under the influence of Iran, and an ISIS-dominated territory in which obscurantism and bloodthirsty brutality hold sway. Such are the fruits of the successful march on Baghdad in 2003. Trillions of American dollars — every penny of it borrowed — were thrown down the Iraqi rathole, as the Bush administration abandoned the principle of balanced budgets and the prospect of paying off the national debt, something that appeared eminently possible at the beginning of its term in office. The dead and the maimed, Americans and Iraqis, suffered to no purpose.

The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite.

Americans are a resilient people. America’s institutions, despite obvious flaws, are superior to those of its enemies and rivals. America recovered from the Syracuse of Vietnam and not only salved the wounds of that war but went on to defeat its main competitor in the arena of world politics. But can America recover from a second Syracuse?

Compare the state of the nation today with that of 1945, or even 1965. Admittedly, not everything has gone to rot. The advances achieved by women and minorities — racial and sexual — have given us a better, freer society, at least on the social plane, compared to 50 years ago. Advances in technology have in some respects brightened our lives. But the heavy hand of government and the machinations of the Deep State have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, enmeshed us in foreign lands where we ought never to have trespassed, and put limits on basic freedoms of speech and privacy. Broad-based prosperity and the economic optimism of the past are gone, perhaps forever, because of adventurism abroad and elite mismanagement of the economy at home.

The current ruptures in the governing duopoly, Republican-Democrat, are clear evidence of dysfunction at the highest level, and of the citizens’ discontent. Yet the election of 2016 will be fought out between a bloviating, ignorant real estate tycoon and a tired, corrupt ex-First Lady. The former knows little of the Washington machine or the intricacies of the Deep State; I predict that, if elected, he will be reduced to a virtual puppet, and the fact will never dawn on him. Hillary, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the status quo, no matter what she may say to placate the supporters of her rival Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump nor Clinton — or anyone else with power, either — appears to have a clue about the real nature of the crisis we are in, much less how to bring us out of it.

A normal country in a normal time? Never again, I think. The future appears quite dark to me.

* * *

Author’s Note: Some readers of Liberty may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Deep State, or may reject it as mere conspiracy-mongering. In fact, the Deep State (or parts thereof) has been discussed in several well-researched books. A newcomer to the idea might begin by reading Philip Giraldi’s article, “Deep State America,”which appeared on the website of the American Conservative on July 30, 2015. Read it. I take issue with Giraldi in one respect: his total focus on the New York-Washington axis of power. The Sun Belt also plays a huge role in the Deep State. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1990 article, by the way, cannot be read free online, but is available through JSTOR.




Share This


Will Libertarians Ever Sing Kumbaya?

 | 

I keep hearing about the “libertarian moment.” And I do believe we’re inching toward one — although we’re not there yet. I’m hoping that when it does arrive, our moment will be beautiful to behold. But will it sound beautiful? So far, we’re making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

On Facebook, I belong to several libertarian groups — part of the lively cross-section of America that the social media serve. These are contentious times, and this election year has been a bloody mess. Sensible souls (most of whom probably stay away from Facebook) might imagine that within groups dedicated to one particular point of view, the discourse is relatively harmonious. That would be sensible, but as far as libertarian groups are concerned it certainly isn’t true.

A lot of the members of these online groups heartily hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats all the time. Of course we’re an independent bunch, and our individualism makes us obstreperous. But I must admit that I come away from some Facebook encounters — as well as any number of those that happen face-to-face — quite shaken. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So far, libertarians are making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

More and more people are joining our ranks. Of course that’s a welcome development. But too many of them are permitting the sicknesses that swarm through statist politics to infect the liberty movement. Our new converts are bringing these contagions in with them.

Confusion abounds about what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that matters that legitimately concern government should be politicized, while those that government should stay completely out of should not. Either this distinction isn’t being explained to inquirers, or they’re woefully slow to grasp it.

If something shouldn’t be politicized, then why are we squabbling about it? We ought to let all comers into our treehouse, as long as they uphold libertarian ideals. I stopped worrying about cooties many years ago. And I tend to resent my time being wasted by disputes over who belongs at which table in the cafeteria.

On one of the libertarian Facebook pages, a couple of days before I began this essay, someone posted a screed ridiculing belief in God. Why was that posted there? Are there no atheist groups? The unmistakable implication was that all libertarians are — or should be — atheists.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are.

I happen to be a libertarian primarily because I’m a Christian, and it’s the political philosophy I believe comes closest to the way Christ taught his followers to live. Now, if I believed that this meant the United States should be turned into a theocracy, I can see why other libertarians would have a problem with it. But then again, if I did believe such a thing, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are. Those invested in seeing themselves (or being seen) as strong and tough-minded, or as godly, patriotic, and upright, usually become Republicans. They love to strut and crow about their “conservatism.” And would-be sophisticates, itching to join the society of the intellectual, the revolutionary, or the cool, gravitate toward the Democratic Party and bloviate endlessly about “progressivism,” “compassion,” and “social justice.”

If these were simply their opinions about themselves, such fancies would be relatively harmless. There is nothing particularly wrong with being any of these things, or at least of trying to be. But they are opinions. They are not fully-fleshed identities. Nor are they necessarily convictions that grow out of confident self-knowledge.

Now this sort of middle-school preening is making its way into the liberty movement. We’re all supposed to care who’s too smart to believe in God, who’s more compassionate toward the downtrodden than everybody else, who thinks all women should be housewives and who thinks homosexuality is a sin. It’s like listening to 12-year-olds brag about being asked to the dance or making the basketball team. As long as these matters aren’t forced to become their problem, well-adjusted adults aren’t going to give a damn.

It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like.

I don’t believe that any law should force bakers to make my wedding cake. Some right-tilting libertarians are so disappointed when they hear this that they refuse to believe it. The switch is flipped on when they hear that I’m gay, and they’re so intent on proving whatever point they feel compelled to prove that there’s no way to turn it off again. It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like. The Republicans and the Democrats have decided that, as a popular Facebook meme puts it, they “don’t want to ‘adult’ today” — which might explain why both parties’ membership rolls are shrinking.

One of the things I love best about libertarians is that most of us enjoy being individuals. When we come together, I meet gay Christians, pro-life atheists, gun-toting pacifists, and recovering alcoholics who’d never touch weed but wholeheartedly support its legalization. Nobody consents to being crammed into a pigeonhole and conveniently labeled. Each of us can be gloriously ourselves. Why would we want it any other way?

By all means, let’s keep on coming together. Maybe, instead of a symphony orchestra, we’re more like a rowdy and exuberant jazz band. We each feel free to improvise; you strut our stuff and I strut mine. Yet on the all-important central theme we cangel. Together, we can make beautiful music. As long as we remember the song.




Share This


Die Nasty

 | 

Statist “progressives” are obsessed with wealth and power. I think that back in the ’80s, they must have been sucked into their TV sets, and they’ve been trapped ever since in an endless episode of Dynasty. This must be why they have no idea what the real world is like.

Oliver, a friend of mine who’s about to retire, will need to go on working — just to survive — until he dies. He can’t disclose to the government that he’ll still be earning money, or he’ll lose the Social Security he paid for with money he might otherwise have invested. Without it, he can’t make enough money, at any job that will still have him, while living on Social Security alone would reduce him to poverty. When I complain about this to people with standard-issue leftist views, all they do is rant about the greedy rich and the big corporations — as if Oliver didn’t exist.

On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas.

Another friend, Kevin, keeps bees and chickens at the home he shares with his life partner, on a spacious property in a semi-rural area. The city, or county, or whoever hands down such edicts, does not permit him to have enough bees or chickens to make a living selling honey and eggs. So he must return to an office cubicle — to spend the rest of his life working for big corporations and the rich.

How does any of this make sense? I mention my second friend to people who care so much about “the working class”. And I get blank stares and silence. Then they launch into yet another diatribe about “social justice.”

I’m beginning to think that they live on a different planet. A good name for it would be Die Nasty. And that’s definitely the way a whole lot of us are going to die, if “progressives” keep showing us their compassion.

The first requirement of honest politics, it seems to me, is that they apply to real people, here on earth. On both the Left and the Right, statists seem to get their view of the world from soap operas. They ignore those of us who actually exist. Stereotypical, one-dimensional characters are all that interest them.

I’m much more concerned about actual human beings. Oliver would love to spend his golden years camping and fishing, and God knows he’s worked hard enough to earn it. Kevin’s farmette is within a stone’s throw of the zoo. He loves getting up to the crow of the rooster and the roar of the lions, and tending to the living things that flourish in his care. But although the American Dream looks different to each of us, for many it’s been preempted by a nightmare.

Were I to appeal to one of my own favorite fictional characters, Sherlock Holmes, he would quickly collar the culprit. “Tell me, my dear Lori,” I hear him muse, as he puffs on his pipe and plays the violin, “who really benefits from this mad scheme?”

I don’t need Doctor Watson to help me find the answer. It is elementary, indeed. The statist Left is the only sector of our society that gets anything out of the equation. “Splendid!” Holmes would declare. “And there is . . . do you not agree . . . a terrible beauty to it all.”

I suppose there is. Leftists keep making the very problems they purport to solve even worse than ever, thereby assuring that they themselves will keep being needed to save the day. Only day after day goes by, and no matter how many years pass, the problems remain. We keep getting more and more desperate for a solution, and far too many of us continue to call upon our “progressive” heroes to help.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it.

Both Oliver and Kevin are diehard progressives. They persist, against all evidence to the contrary, in thinking that their saviors will come through for them. Racial tensions soar into the stratosphere, the battle of the sexes goes thermonuclear, and gay activists snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by attacking religious freedom just as same-sex marriage is gaining ground. Still, the faithful keep faith. If I were to tell my friends that government is making their lives miserable, they would quickly protest that — oh, no! — government is noble, and has We the People’s best interests at heart.

The only people who might hold the statist Left responsible for keeping its promises are those who support it. I have stopped, because I no longer believe in statism at all. I, too, will have to work for the rest of my life, because Obama and Company have robbed me of the chance that I might ever retire. I still believe in progress, but I refuse to accept the silly mummery that claims to promote it as any substitute for the real thing.

Real people need real solutions. It would help if more of us got a clue. Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him?




Share This


Damsel in Distress

 | 




Share This


Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Syndrome

 | 

Merely a few years back sophisticated investors in the Western world were obsessed with ABCP, which was designed on the premise that if you put a lot of risky investments together, whirl them together nicely — removing the need to see the actual ingredients — make them tradable and hence liquid, somehow the basic risk that was right at the core of the ABCP would disappear. Alas, as can be expected, ABCP actually worsened the risk-reward situation, for now broker commissions had to be paid and the lack of risk perception encouraged an increase in the size of the higher-risk ingredients of ABCP.

How did ABCP come to be acceptable by the very best in Western society? It was a result of an irrationality that has been creeping into the society, a result of the subservience of the individual and his thinking to the institutional order, and more importantly of a corruption of the feedback mechanism by the politicization and collectivization of every aspect of life.

By suffering or benefiting from the consequences of our actions, we are enabled to align actions and beliefs to what is best for our prosperity. This we often no longer do. Institutions have interfered to privatize profits and socialize costs. This is socialism. It is also the mysticism that constitutes the very essence of backward, poor societies. For all intents and purposes, mysticism is synonymous with socialism.

In the West, there has been a significant break from individual self-responsibility. It is no longer necessary to do productive work or look after for your health or have a husband to have babies or save for your old age. The nanny state promises to look after you. This has broken the feedback system. The result is that our thinking is no longer aligned to what is best for us, what is rational and what makes for a productive society.

In the West, people increasingly believe that something can be created from nothing, the magic that either the state or God will provide for you if you pray. Rhetoric and sound-bites, accepted as universal truths, allow people to avoid delving deeper. It is now believed possible that the inherent risks of life can be eliminated through top-down management by experts. You have the same vote in political space whether you understand the issues or not, and this means mediocrity in the intellectual space. No value is found in deep exploration of a subject. Meanwhile, mysticism produces a significantly reduced sense of causality. The passion to advance one’s life and explore its possibilities has little value in a mystical culture.

In the West, people increasingly believe that something can be created from nothing, the magic that either the state or God will provide for you if you pray.

The product is an increasingly superstitious society and confused, cloudy thinking. Increased crime and loss of prosperity are the obvious consequence, because self-responsibility has taken a back seat. Dependence on thinking driven by the media and whatever is in fashion makes superstitious beliefs spread very quickly. Not many question how the printing of currency can create prosperity. Who needs to work when wealth can be created by the magic wand? Why look after your health when ultra-high-tech medical technology can take care of all ailments, perhaps making a lot of people subliminally believe that mortality can be avoided. Not many question that the world can be changed by the heavy hand of the US military. Everyone seems to have an answer for how to get rid of poverty and crime.

ABCP thinking makes people in the West worry about such things as the possibility that a certain drug might kill one in a million users. This endless worry about the smallest harm that may come from anything creates terrible regulatory problems and cost increases. Delays in drug approval kill far more people than they were supposed to save.

When 9/11 happened, a lot of Americans shouted, “How could this happen here? This is America.” Alas, there is nothing about America that makes it immune to attacks. It was not just the deaths of 3,000 people that affected Americans but their nationalistic arrogance. The steps Americans took to deal with 9/11 damaged liberty and security instead of strengthening them. Now the equivalent of thousands of lives is wasted in lineups at American airports.

As heartless as it may sound, 20 children being killed by a gunman is not a world-changing event. Many more people are killed on the roads each day in the United States. Many more are murdered in other ways. Just because a certain crime is covered by major news channels does not meant that people have to do something in a kneejerk fashion. That is superstition. Of course, one might want to explore the various reasons behind violent crimes, but putting restrictions on society without a cost-benefit analysis only leaves people with a false sense of security.

Gun control, putting metal detectors in every school, making people to go through porno-scanners at airports, is a wrong reflex. People must get some perspective on life. They also need to develop, or redevelop, a sense of responsibility for themselves. Then, after a bit of thought they may realize that shooting massacres have a way of happening in areas where guns cannot be taken in by decent people. In the end, they may accept the fact that even after all proper actions are taken, bad things will happen. This is the nature of life.

Western society must find a way back to rationality and restore a social structure shaped so that a person faces the consequences of his actions. This will be the antidote to mysticism and will likely put the West back on the path to progress.




Share This


Prostitution and Coercion

 | 

I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” Dictionary.com defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.




Share This


State Tests vs. School Choice

 | 

A few months ago, Richard Phelps attracted attention with an article in The Wilson Quarterly called "Teach to the Test?” Its argument is that "most of the problems with [school] testing have one surprising source: cheating by school administrators and teachers."

Last week an investigative report published in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution found indications of standardized test cheating in school systems throughout the US.

Certainly cheating of various types is a big problem in education. But it is not really that surprising. Where else would the highest stakes of evaluation be left up to the individuals or groups being evaluated? But these articles proceed from the unquestioned assumption that state tests are an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality. For instance, Richard Phelps wrote, “Without standardized tests, there would be no means for members of the public to reliably gauge learning in their schools.”

The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills. I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned. I agree that more learning is better. I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity. I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality. It has taken me several years to come to this position. I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is wrong. The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include. For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum. I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling. State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

I run six charter schools, which due to our use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which we reside. DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching. The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing. All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills. DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but we love it, and so do our students and parents.

Curricula such as DI that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test — while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material. A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests. While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum. Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire. These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum. But if schools that use DI, such as my own, taught what is in our curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools. Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do. Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests. One is that the results have no consequences for the children. Another is that these are children taking these tests. Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances. In our schools we have found children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test. Yet they can reach not only "proficient" but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired. Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test. This is not cheating. These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”And it is an appropriate accommodation. It just shows the best that the student can do. Guess what? Children don’t always do their best. Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with. If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year.

If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers.

Third is the issue of students' ability. Obviously, the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn. The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them. Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach. It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad. That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ — which is never the case. It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know who is stronger. If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers — just as it happens in every other service industry. We could do it easily in our schools, without a state test. If we gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of our DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what we teach. Few students outside of our schools could match that performance. That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-decide-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.